A PBL Pathway to 21st Century Deeper Learning Schools

Deeper Learning: Defined and Described

Driving Question: What happens when evidence challenges “yes buts” about deeper learning?

My 9th grade English teacher always insisted that I define the key term when introducing a new topic. Driving questions dictate the same. Plus, every time I see a blog post or magazine article about Deeper Learning, the first questions ask what that key term means. More often than not, I am asked for examples to clarify the term. On the other hand, I hear “yes… but” that the term “deeper learning” is “old hat” or “everybody does that.” Thus, I thought it might be a good idea to layout the definition, some examples and describe its ingredients at the start of this issue before responding to the key “yes, buts…”

Definitions and Descriptions

As I understand it, Deeper Learning is an umbrella term that describes what happens when teachers challenge students to explore, investigate, solve problems, or inquire about topics that they need to understand in depth and in life. Teachers who desire deeper learning results create deeper learning not as an occasional strategy that is nice for some, but as their fundamental approach that is necessarily good for all. Depth of learning can start on the surface with memorized names, dates and numbers and extend understanding downward and outward, or it can start with profound questions that drive students to think critically and solve complex problems on their way to understanding their course work.

Deeper learning is what students do when they learn for understanding. The process occurs when students’ minds are engaged in critical or creative thinking and problems solving so they can learn content a mile deep and only inches wide. In formal instruction, it happens when teachers (a) create conditions and (b) select 4Cs strategies that enable students to critically think, creatively problem solve, collaborate and communicate in more complex ways (or what Bloom called “higher order”), about the immediate subject matter. As a result, students are self-driven to transfer those skills as competencies across their curriculum and into life situations beyond the school walls.

  • Deeper Learning Process Example: Jones creates a PBL for her physics class. The PBL will investigate the laws of motion and force. She wants her students to articulate these laws in the context of real world examples that they construct. (In the good old days, she told them what the real world examples would be and tested to see that they could recall at least one.) In this project, she determines that students in this class need to know how to collect data on a spread sheet and organize the data so that it makes sense in solving the force-motion math required. She also ascertains other students have very weak presentation skills. Because the PBL will require a presentation, measured by a rubric in which students will have to explain the laws and show how the laws apply in the roller coaster problem, she plans time for a “need to know” mini-lab for each group. Ms. Jones administers the science department’s vocabulary test. In addition, she reviews each students’ math problem solving, presentation and roller coaster model with rubrics that are weighted as 80% of the final grade.
  • Surface Example: Applegate provides a vocabulary sheet with eight terms that students must recognize about force and motion. He shows them a film about force and motion on a roller coaster design and he lectures on how the laws apply. In his final exam, students’ match definitions with terms as per the department exam and complete true-false questions about the applications he had presented in his lecture.
  • Second, deeper learning consists of outcomes. The outcomes are described as student proficiencies or competencies to think, problem solve, etc. and transfer those competencies into curriculum and life situations. (Hewlett, 2011). Here is how deeper learning outcomes play out in the roller coaster example.
    • Deeper Learning Outcomes Example:Thomas and Maria decide to complete their physics PBL on force and motion by starting with a study of the nearby Great America coaster “Batman the Ride“. Following the need to know guidelines from Ms. Jones, they interview the engineer at Great America who shows them the ride’s blueprint and details its force and motion effects. The pair does on-line research with PHEt’s Ramp Using a matrix provided by Ms. Jones, they organize their findings and practice on examples. They then set up their hypothesis for constructing a model coaster that will allow them to test Newton’s laws. They ask Ms. Jones for a need to know review of the math practice involved. After their model fails, they prepare a presentation to describe what they had learned from the process and the failed result.
    • Contrast Surface Outcomes Sample:Thomas and Marie quiz each other to learn key words for the unit exam. They also collaborate on comparing notes from Mr. A’s lecture so they can answer the true-false items they predict will be on the test about the force and motion laws.

The Hewlett Definition

The Hewlett Foundation created a succinct definition that captures the important processes and outcomes of deeper learning. “Deeper learning is a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job.” (Hewlett, 2011). An analysis of the parts of this definition, as shown in Figure 1, allows us to break the pieces apart so that we can more easily make sense of how each competency fits to enable the transfer of learning into new and different situations.

Yes, but…
Once naysayers hear this definition, I can predict to a high degree of reliability that they will give me one of two “yes, that’s a good idea, but…” slaps.
First, I will hear…”there is nothing new here.” And my response is, “We agree, no buts about it.” Aristotle started deeper learning with Socrates’ questions which always probed for reasons “why” the student at the other end of the log made a response or asked the student to make an application. On the other side of the globe, Confucius was doing the same. A few centuries later, my 9th grade teacher followed their example.

Second, I will hear “this is what teachers generally do.” No “yes, buts” here either. Just a straight forward “What are you smoking?” In my own experience, the experience of my children and grandchildren, I can count the teachers on one-half the fingers on my right hand who taught math and science for deeper learning outcomes. That didn’t make the missing fingers be bad people or bad teachers. Most were very competent at teaching the way the factory model wanted—for surface outcomes.

Based on observations in many other classrooms including language arts, science, math, social studies and yes, even religion, the ratio holds except when I come to schools where the environment runs counter to the shallow learning norms. Here, and as a groundbreaking new study from the prestigious American Institute for Research (2014) makes clear, deeper learning methods do result in students using deeper learning strategies and the outcomes show the results.

Not So Naïve

I am not so naïve to imagine that the AIR study or what I have seen with my own eyes will stop the “yes buts.” I can, however, say this. In the many posts that follow this “definition,” you will discover that the pros which support moving all teachers and students into deeper learning far outweigh the cons. And as a later post in this issue will illustrate, the AIR study shows that the concrete in the foundation of deeper learning is solidifying.

AIR, Study of D Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes, accessed athttp://www.air.org/project/study-deeper-learning-opportunities-and-outcomes

Hewlett Foundation: http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education

This post form P21 Blogazine Archive: November 3, 2014, Volume 1, Issue 9, No. 1

Upcoming Events:

ILASCD Lead and Learn 2017

October 25 and 26, 2017
Roosevelt University, Schaumberg
Read More

32nd International Self-Directed Learning Symposium

February 7-10, 2018
Cocoa Beach, Florida, USA
Read More

Contact Us

950 N. Michigan Ave. #3005
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Phone: 847-921-9174
Email: info@ilc21.org
A 501 C (3) Not-For-Profit Corporation


The Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools (Illinois 21) is a 501C3 not-for-profit organization. Illinois 21 is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims all liability for, damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to, or reliance on any information contained within the site. While the information contained within the site is periodically updated, no guarantee is given that the information provided in this Web site is correct, complete, and up-to-date.